Revealed: Blake's vision of a British statue of liberty

A Millennium monument? It won't match a towering idea they had 200 years ago, reports Clare Harman
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However big and however spectacular the Millennium Exhibition planned for Greenwich in 2000, it is unlikely to be as striking a sight as what might once have been.

For London's most astonishing lost monument was a 230ft-high statue of Britannia Triumphant, looking out over the capital from the top of Greenwich Hill. More than twice the height of the Colossus of Rhodes and 80ft taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Greenwich Britannia would have been not just an extraordinary London landmark, but "the noblest Monument of National Glory in the world".

The idea was that of John Flaxman, a highly influential draughtsman of his day, creator of hundreds of designs for Josiah Wedgewood, and the first professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy. It is illustrated in a virtually forgotten engraving by William Blake, Flaxman's pupil, which is to be found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Flaxman's design was an entry to a competition set up by the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) for a national naval monument to celebrate Britain's victory at the Battle of the Nile. The competition was part of a wave of imperialist reaction to the French Revolution which kept sculptors and artists busy. In 1795 the Government voted money to have sculptures made of British war heroes.

Public and private funding for the arts were at a peak, and the demand for heroic statuary seemed insatiable. Flaxman's scheme for the Britannia did not just go one better than the usual; his cool neo-classical design, as illustrated by Blake, seems to suggest that for artists, statesmen and the nation as a whole, it was time to Think Big.

"It is a work intended to last as long as the Trajan Column, the Amphitheatres, or the Pyramids of Egypt," he wrote in the pamphlet supporting his entry. "If it is greatly conceived, and executed in a manner worthy of the grandeur and power of the country, it will ensure the praise and admiration of succeeding ages."

Other submissions to the competition included a naval pillar designed by James Gillray, and a figure of Father Thames by James Barry, but neither of these saw off the Greenwich Britannia. Flaxman himself withdrew the scheme, as a gesture of support for the painter John Opie's proposed Gallery of British Honour. This was to be a sort of Pantheon to promote and influence British art, "much more profitable to the public and beneficial to the arts of design than mine", as Flaxman said, anticipating perhaps more than was delivered by the gallery when it opened in 1813.

His Britannia was not, however, entirely wasted. He exhibited the design in 1801 and used it later in a monument to Lord North. Britannia also appears on Flaxman's Trafalgar Vase and his monument to Nelson in St Paul's. But it was Nelson's death and not the duke's competition that eventually provided London with its most famous naval monument in Trafalgar Square, and another pupil of Flaxman's, Edward Hodges Bailey, who sculpted the figure at the top of the column.

Flaxman had chosen Greenwich with purpose: his statue would not only "finish off" (critics may think literally) the prospect of Wren's Naval Hospital, Inigo Jones's Queen's House and the Observatory, be visible from the river and all the high points of London, but also , standing on the Meridian, would function as "the point from which the world would be measured".

The Millennium Exhibition would have found a natural focal point in this massive symbol of national pride and extravagance, although no publicly funded contemporary jamboree could achieve anything like the bullishness of Flaxman's design. He was at pains to point out that, whatever monument was chosen, it must not be shoddy: "It would certainly be far better not to raise any National Monument whatever on the present occasion, than one upon which considerable labour and expense should be laid out, to be the scoff of foreigners, and the disgrace of the country as long as it should exist."

Something for the Millennium Commissioners to chew on.